By Kathy Kelly
December 10thÂ marks the U.N. Human Rights Day, celebrating and upholding the indispensable and crucial declaration of universal human rights. On the eve of this event, I visitedÂ a refugee camp housing 700 families in Kabul. Conditions in refugee camps can be deplorable, intolerable. Here, the situation is best described as surreal. As I approach the entrance to the camp with my friends Nematullah, Zarghuna and Henrietta, we are overcome by the stench emanating from an open sewer filled with filth. I ask myself, “Can this be real?”
Inside the camp, primitive mud huts are separated by narrow walkways.Â When theÂ inevitableÂ snow comes, the ground inside and outsideÂ the homes will be muddy until the mud freezes.Â PlasticÂ has been placed oversome of the doors and roofs, in hopes of providing insulation from the coming cold.Â Mothers in the camp tell us winter months are unbearably hard.Â Children become sick at theÂ onsetof winter and they donâ€™t recover until spring arrives. People burn plastic, boots, clothing, and water bottles for fuel, but when those resourcesÂ are depleted, they relyÂ solelyÂ on heavy blankets to protect them from the cold.
A singleÂ water pump serves all 700 families, and the water isnâ€™tÂ even potable.Â ItÂ needs toÂ be boiled for 20 minutesÂ before use.
LatrinesÂ hereÂ are the â€œtraditional type,â€Â simpleÂ holes dug in the ground.
Our visit was arranged byÂ Nematullah,Â anÂ Afghan Peace Volunteer. AÂ friend of hisÂ teaches informal language and math classes toÂ children at the camp.Â NematullahÂ leaned over and asked me to jot down the rights listed in the UN Declaration of Human Rights.Â I quickly scribbled food, water, shelter, health care, employmentÂ and security in my notebook. As we listened to the mothers describe their daily lives, we checked off the rightsÂ they have beenÂ denied.
â€œSomeÂ days we get food from the market if our children work there,â€ said Nazar Bibi. â€œThey bring back potatoes or turnips. Otherwise we eat bread and tea. Sometimes we have no tea, and sometimes we donâ€™t even have bread.â€
We were told,
“If someone becomes sick there is no clinic, no first aid. And we have no hospitals nearby that will help us. We canâ€™t afford to travel to hospitals that might accept us.Â (Six hospitals serving â€œbetter offâ€ people are within walking distance of the camp, but none of them accept the camp residents, who have no means to pay hospital bills, as patients.)
We donâ€™t want to send our children to work on the streets. Weâ€™re afraid theyâ€™ll be hit by a car or blown up by a suicide bomber. But we are desperate for food and fuel and there is no work for men and women here in the camp. Sometimes the children return home and there is no bread for them.Â They wake up afterÂ midnight, begging for food because they are so hungry, and there is nothing for them.”
“If we had education, perhaps we wouldnâ€™t be here,â€ said Nazar Bibi. â€œWe want our children to learn, but even government schools cost money. We have no income.”
One woman managed to laugh. â€œWe donâ€™t even know what a dollar looks like!Â What color is it? Is it black, or white?â€ said Shukria. â€œIf America sends dollars here, we never see them. No one cares about us.â€
The women said they do feel secure within the camp. They can go to the latrine without being harassed.
A Country Still Torn Apart
Shojun and her family are relieved to have escapedÂ theÂ fighting in Kunduz. She described nightmare experiencesÂ withÂ bulletsÂ flyingÂ back and forth over and through her house.Â After fleeing in haste theyÂ realizedÂ one of the seven children was still in the house.Â Fortunately, he was saved. She and her family arrived in Kabul with no belongings,Â onlyÂ themselves.
Shukria, who fled fighting in the Laghman province, showed us the large raw scar tissue covering her inner, upper arm.Â The Taliban killed her husband 12 years ago.Â SheÂ thenÂ married his brother, but two years ago, during renewed fighting between the Taliban and government forces, their home was attacked.Â Her husband lostÂ aÂ foot. He then leftÂ the province, abandoning her and her two children.Â Shukria says that sometimes sheÂ considers suicide but thenÂ thinks of the two children.Â Today, she has no food to serve them lunch. ShukriaÂ herselfÂ is painfully thin.Â She shakes her head, and adds because she never has shampoo she washes her hair with detergent and she thinks itâ€™s causing her hair to fall out.
The Tragedy of Misplaced U.S. Priorities
Up to the end of 2014,Â the U.S. had spent more money for â€˜reconstructionâ€™ in Afghanistan than was allotted for the Marshall PlanÂ (more than two-thirds of this had gone to build up Afghan military and police forces), yet Afghans remain one of the poorest people in the world.
At the same time, the U.S. Congress has authorizedÂ $618.7 billion for theÂ National Defense Authorization Act,to fund the Department of Defense in 2017.Â Even a fraction of this budget, directed toward human needs, would solve the problem of starving children worldwide as well as meet the needs of the destitute people living in theÂ camps throughout Afghanistan. It would be fitting on thisÂ December 10th, U.N Human Rights Day, if the citizens of the US were to extend a hand of true friendship to those in need throughout the world and make meeting the needs of the world’s least fortunate the first priority. True security for the US will be achieved through caring for and respecting the world’s most needy, not through the rampages of war and destruction that has made the US the most feared country in the world.Î¦
Kathy Kelly (Kathy@vcnv.org) writes for PeaceVoice and co-coordinates Voices for Creative Nonviolence (www.vcnv.org) When in Afghanistan, she is a guest of the Afghan Peace Volunteers (ourjournetytosmile.com).